Jamal Khashoggi: Turkey hunts black van it believes carried body

Officials search for vehicle they say was part of convoy belonging to Saudi hit squad

Turkish authorities are examining motorway cameras in the search for a black van they believe carried the body of Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week – one of six cars investigators say belonged to a Saudi hit squad thought to be behind the suspected murder of the dissident journalist.

Officials say the convoy left the consulate around two hours after Khashoggi entered. Security camera footage shows boxes being loaded into the van, which carried diplomatic number plates. After leaving the consulate grounds, three cars turned left on to a main road while the remaining three turned right. Investigators say one of the vehicles, a van with blacked out windows, has become the focus of the investigation, and was briefly tracked to a nearby motorway.

Nearly a week since Khashoggi disappeared, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stepped up his calls for Riyadh to explain what happened to the high-profile critic of the Saudi leadership. The Turkish president had struck a measured tone when pressed on Khashoggi, while allowing government officials and state media to drip-feed allegations. Details of the convoy were disclosed by the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper.

“We have to get an outcome from this investigation as soon as possible,” Erdoğan said from Budapest. “The consulate officials cannot save themselves by simply saying: ‘He has left.’”

He said he was personally following the case but had no new evidence to table.

Senior officials in Ankara remain convinced Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi state hit squad sent to Istanbul to abduct or kill him, who were lying in wait when he arrived at the consulate last Tuesday afternoon. It was Khashoggi’s second visit to finalise his divorce, after being told the previous Friday that his papers were not in order. His fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, had waited outside.

Flight records show two Saudi planes arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on Tuesday and departed separately that same day, hours after Khashoggi was last seen.

Saudi authorities continue to insist they played no role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. They acknowledge that a “security delegation” was sent to Istanbul on Saturday but have not offered a reason for the journey.

Jamal Khashoggi was one of the Arab world’s most prominent journalists and commentators. He was an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia who dared to defy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

While living in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi was told to stop writing or posting on Twitter, where he had more than 1.6 million followers. He moved to the US in June 2017, where he continued to comment on his country both in print and on television. He wrote columns for the Washington Post and the Guardian.

His message struck a nuanced tone in the US, where he tried to acknowledge the reforms undertaken by Bin Salman while also highlighting the flaws.

Khashoggi previously had close links with the Saudi royal family, including having served as a media aide to Prince Turki al-Faisal, when the latter was director general of the Saudi intelligence agency.

He was also a former editor of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan and had worked with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a grandson of the first Saudi king.

Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Turkish investigators have hinted they know more about the disappearance than they have disclosed. Though wary of each other, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have traditionally tried to avoid public spats. The countries have significant trade and investment ties and vie for influence across the region. Erdoğan’s response is likely to become more pointed in the coming days if there is no movement on issues that matter more to him than the disappearance of a foreign national inside Turkey.

Khashoggi has been one of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s most prominent critics. A member of the Saudi elite, he had remained in exile in the US for much of the past year, from where he wrote columns for the Washington Post critiquing aspects of the Kingdom’s reform programme.

Turan Kislakci, a friend of Khashoggi, said the 59-year-old told him he had been invited to return to Riyadh by the crown prince to act as an adviser. Khashoggi had sought assurances about his safety from friends in the US before visiting the consulate and had asked Cengiz to contact Turkish authorities if he failed to emerge. She raised the alarm four hours later, by which time the convoy is believed to have left the consulate.

Turkey has an extensive system of motorway cameras that are regularly used to provide evidence in criminal probes. The disappearance has shocked many in Turkey and caused alarm in some quarters of Riyadh.

Calls for clarity from the international community mounted on Monday, with the US, Britain and France seeking explanations from Riyadh.

After six days of silence from the Trump administration, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, issued a statement saying senior US diplomats had spoken to their Saudi counterparts about the case.

“We call on the government of Saudi Arabia to support a thorough investigation of Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance and to be transparent about the results of that investigation,” Pompeo said. A few hours earlier, Vice-President Mike Pence said he was “deeply troubled” and warned that “the free world deserves answers”.

The US president Donald Trump, a robust ally of Saudi Arabia who had pledged to stay out of the country’s domestic affairs, made more tentative remarks, telling reporters he was “concerned” about “some pretty bad stories” about Khashoggi’s fate. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner maintains close personal ties with the crown prince.

Speaking for the first time about the allegations, a UK Foreign Office spokesman said: “These are extremely serious allegations. We are aware of the latest reports and are working urgently to establish the facts, including with the government of Saudi Arabia.”

The episode has put the UK in an awkward diplomatic position since it is close both to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Office would face charges of hypocrisy if, after its outrage over the attempted assassination by Russia of the former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, it remained silent over an alleged murder by the Saudi government.

It would also put Britain directly at odds with the crown prince, who is a key UK ally. In his dealings with Canada, including a withdrawal of investment, the Saudi ruler has shown he does not tolerate criticism of his country’s human rights record.

France said it was seeking an explanation as to how an “accomplished and esteemed” journalist had vanished.


Martin Chulov in Istanbul and Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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